By Mollie Hogan and Shirley Gordon
Eighteen years ago, a bundle of tawny fur was brought into the Los Angeles Zoo. Who could imagine then it would one day become a 150-pound seven-foot long mountain lion?
We called him “Phoenix”----not particularly for either the Arizona city or the fabled bird, but just because it sounded like a good name for a mountain lion.
As an animal keeper at the zoo, I started working with the little four-week-old-male cub. With a wild animal this means controlling some of its natural wild instincts. The little cub had plenty of time for spontaneous play and exercise in what we called the “fun cage” at the zoo, a roomy area of grass and water and objects to manipulate. But for his own safety, as well as ours, he had to be taught manners—taking food “nicely” from my hand, adjusting to a leash, going to his “mark” and staying there.
To further our bonding, I took him home each night where he slept on a bathmat in my bathroom and played in my backyard which was enclosed by a six-foot fence. He liked to romp with my two Australian shepherd dogs, stalking them as though they were prey and pouncing on them playfully.
During his kitten hood he went everywhere with me, out to breakfast on my day off, and on all my errands after work—even riding on the bus one time when I was having car problems!
Of course, the time came when Phoenix grew too big to be taken away from the zoo. But over the next five years I continued to work with him in the Zoo’s popular “Wild in the City Show” that featured wildlife from our local area. This meant training him to do things on cue, like scratching a log, jumping up on a stump, and placing his big paw in my hand, allowing me to show the audience a close-up look at his impressive claws.
But then funding constraints forced the show to be cancelled. The animals no longer had a place at the zoo. I was especially concerned about the fate of my long-time close companion, Phoenix.
What to do with a wild animal that has been raised and cared for in captivity and as a result is unfit for the wild is an all too familiar problem created by people—all the more so when the animal is a 150-pound puma!
Once, in a time long before Columbus, this magnificent species of cat—Puma concolor, “cat of one color” and cat of many names: cougar, puma , painter, catamount—roamed freely over the North American continent. Then the Europeans came and instantly defined all large predators as enemies, striking them down with guns and traps.
Gradually, the mountain lion gave ground—seldom seen anymore east of the Mississippi, and in the west retreating into remote areas, keeping its distance from people. An expert at staying out of sight despite it’s size, it is among the shyest and most wary of the large carnivores.
Today, however, with the encroachment of human activity and the diminishment of its own natural habitat, the big cat is sometimes forced into confrontations with humans. In most instances this creates more of a threat to the animal than to the human.
Phoenix, however, is his own special story. Living with humans and serving as a goodwill ambassador for his kind in the wild, Phoenix grew up graciously allowing the public to view him up-close.
With his displacement from his zoo home in 1993, I became determined to provide a new home where he and other wild animals could receive quality care and shelter for the rest of their lives. That’s why , in the early 1990’s, I established The Nature of Wildworks, a decision I’ve never regretted.
Along with varied diets and enriched habitats, our resident animals are provided with opportunities for natural activity. A favorite mountain lion game is having a thick telephone book tossed inside the enclosure. The cats pounce, and chew and rip apart the pages with claws and jaws just as they would live prey in the wild.
Has Phoenix ever turned on me? Yes. Just once. But it was my fault.
One must always remember that a wild animal is a wild animal, and in particular that a predator never loses the natural instincts of a predator. I wasn’t keeping that in mind when it happened.
One day, several years ago, Phoenix seemed sick and I was concerned. He wasn’t acting like himself and when I went into his cage, I was preoccupied, looking quickly for a sign of something he might have eaten that he shouldn’t.
Then, when I faced him , I saw the look on his face suddenly change from the benign,
“Hi Mom” expression he always gives me to the focused stare of predator-on-prey. The pupils of his eyes contracted into pinpoints. They call it “pinning”.
In the next instant he had knocked me to the ground. I managed to scramble up: grab a stout stick and rap him on the nose. He backed off and I re-emerged as the“ boss”.
I wasn’t seriously hurt. But I came way from the incident with a renewed respect for my old friend’s natural wild instincts.! I threw him a phone book.
Many animals have taken up residence at Wildworks since the original few came here from the zoo. At present our wildlife center is home to a diversity of species including the African serval cat, North American bobcat, red fox, gray fox, African Fennec fox, coyotes, kinkajous from South America, a wide variety of raptors and , of course, the mountain lion. Our facility is not open to the public so the smaller animals are transported off sight for programs at public venues such as schools and parks where people can see them and learn about wildlife and habitat.
Phoenix is now almost 19 years old. I walk him on a leash through the oak forest every sunny day. He is still my best friend. Phoenix is an amazing animal.